If I didn't believe popular culture, including and most especially films, affected our culture, I never would've been asked to sign on for Big Hollywood. Of course movies affect us. Businesses and political campaigns wouldn’t spend billions to try to change our thinking if sustained exposure to messaging through visual and audio didn’t work.
There's no question that mass media, starting with magazines, radio, and the motion picture, had a dramatic effect on our country. Suddenly we were all connected, and what had once been a country of small communities with their own mores became a nation under the sway of the very few who held the levers of popular culture.
As a result, there's been good and bad. The good came from what's known as Hollywood's Golden Age -- when the men who made the movies pushed to create a nation better than their flawed selves -- a country and world that believed in liberty, community, American exceptionalism, hard work, chivalry, the dignity of the individual, and that women could be strong while still being treated with honor by the men around them.
The bad came later, as Hollywood was infested with leftists who undermined our country and sexualized women under the guise of equality, all while promoting nihilism through the glamorizing of loveless sex, drug use, pointless violence, and detached irony.
Granted, that's a simplistic way to look at both eras. The Golden Age wasn't perfect, and today's Hollywood isn’t perfectly bad. But if you had choose a stark dividing mark between the two, that would be it.
In the wake of the awful massacre in Aurora, Colorado, we're reading al lot of criticism directed at Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," the second feature in the director's trilogy and the one with the memorable "Joker" character that apparently inspired the alleged movie theatre shooter. The problem with much of this criticism, however, is that it portrays the movie as the exact opposite of what it really is.
A few examples…
Peggy Noonan: Remember Jack Nicholson’s Joker, from 1989? He was a garish, comic figure and he made people laugh. He was a little like Cyril Richard as Captain Hook in the old TV version of “Peter Pan.” You knew he wasn’t “real.” He was meant to amuse.
Compare that with Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008′s “The Dark Night.” That Joker was pure evil, howling and demonic, frightening to see and hear. If you know what darkness is, you couldn’t watch that Joker and not be afraid. He looked like the man who opens the door when you get off the elevator to enter Hell; he looked like the guy holding the red velvet rope.
Carl Cannon: It’s difficult to know what mid-century adults would even think about the current Batman series directed and produced by Christopher Nolan. The nihilism and glorified carnage of “The Dark Knight,” which came out in 2008, shocked even seasoned reviewers.
“The greatest surprise of all -- even for me, after eight years spent working as a film critic -- has been the sustained level of intensely sadistic brutality throughout the film,” wrote Jenny McCartney of the London Daily Telegraph. “The film begins with a heist carried out by men in sinister clown masks. As each clown completes a task, another shoots him point-blank in the head. The scene ends with a clown – The Joker – stuffing a bomb into a wounded bank employee’s mouth.”
There are many other examples, but I chose these two because they're the most thoughtful and reasoned. And I mostly agree with the overall points both writers make but do think that, like many others, both unfairly mischaracterize "The Dark Knight" as though it exists anywhere close to the same universe as a "Natural Born Killers" or "Friday the 13th."
First, there's absolutely nothing new about the type of movie villain Heath Ledger created with the Joker. A charismatic villain lacking in empathy and made giddy by senseless, cold violence goes back more than a half-century: Richard Widmark became a star playing Tommy Udo in 1947's "Kiss of Death"; James Cagney is unforgettable as Cody Jarrett in 1949's "White Heat"; there's Lee Marvin's Vince Stone in 1953's "The Big Heat" and Robert Mitchum's remarkable turn as child rapist Max Cady in 1962's "Cape Fear."
I would argue that Bela Lugosi in 1931's "Dracula" and the Wicked Witch in 1939's "Wizard of Oz" both qualify, because both lacked empathy and, while they were arguably motivated to kill and terrorize, they still enjoyed every minute of it.
And these are just a few examples from the Golden Era. If I were to start naming nihilistic names post-1967 and Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde," we would be here all day.
This isn’t a defense of Nolan's and Ledger's Joker character, but it does make the important point that the character was far from groundbreaking.
The defense begins now.
Noonan, Cannon and those who agree with them have made the point that audiences and critics alike found the Joker's nihilism and pointless violence intensely disturbing. I would argue that portraying violence in an ugly way as opposed to glorifying it or portraying it as cartoonish is an argument in the film's favor.
Finally, and most importantly, unlike the dozens upon dozens of films that actually do revel in and glorify violence and pointless nihilism, "The Dark Knight" is a shockingly moral film that is quite obviously an argument against cinematic nihilism -- for it has old-fashioned heroes.
First, of course, there's Batman/Bruce Wayne -- a selfless, honorable, and noble man who refuses to give in to the Joker's nihilism and kill him when he has the chance (twice). Batman fights for something bigger than himself and does so at a terrible personal price. Batman is an inspiration, an old-fashioned good guy everyone can look up to.
But the real heroes of "The Dark Knight" are you and I.
If I had to choose the most inexpressibly moving and inspiring moment of humanity of any film released over the least five years, it would be the sequence in "The Dark Knight" when Joker is truly foiled.
In this unforgettable sequence, one ferry carries everyday citizens, another carries hardened criminals. Joker has rigged both to explode and will only save the passengers on the ferry who choose to blow up the other. In the end, both sets of passengers choose to die rather than commit murder.
Whatever drove that evil in Aurora, Colorado -- it was someone who missed the entire point of "The Dark Knight."
And that's not on Christopher Nolan.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC